Cancer doctor/patient on life after breast cancer: You must flourish
June 4, 2015 | by Elizabeth Lynn Meyering M.D.
Oncologist Elizabeth Lynn Meyering, M.D., an assistant clinical professor who practices at City of Hope | Simi Valley, can connect with cancer patients in a way that only a former patient herself can understand. Having been diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007, Meyering knows firsthand their trials, fears and need to look forward. Here, Meyering – now cancer-free for nearly eight years – shares her own perspective on breast cancer and its aftermath.
Did I always want to be a physician? For me, I have always felt that we usually do what we are meant to do. That means I have always taken what, to me, feels like the path of least resistance – but the least resistance doesn’t necessarily mean the easiest.
The only way to explain this is to say that my area of expertise, medical oncology, actually chose me. I could not imagine myself in any other field of medicine, and honestly, if I had attempted to do anything differently, it would have been an uphill struggle. I have a specific interest in breast cancer, and even more so, in "life after breast cancer" because of my own personal experience with the disease.
I tell my patients that it isn't enough to survive cancer – they must flourish.
I know this can be difficult. A cancer diagnosis and the treatment – both physical and emotional – can take a toll. Plus, there is always the fear of a cancer setback. Patients who survive their first malignancy have an increased risk of a second malignancy, so it's quite difficult to look forward once you have been tapped on the shoulder by cancer. However, we must look forward.
When people are newly diagnosed with cancer, information becomes quite the whirlwind, especially with breast cancer, which takes such multidisciplinary coordination. I tell my patients to bring a family member or friend to their consultations as a second set of ears, and I suggest they keep track of things in a notebook. They need to ask questions. This is their life, their story, so they need to have all of their concerns addressed.
Breast cancer treatment symptoms seem to be universal, regardless of what treatment patients receive. Fatigue, moodiness, depression, body image issues, lymphedema, premature menopause, joint stiffness and pain, and many other symptoms are frequent. Many issues can be managed medically, but some have deeper roots, such as the grief for one's life before breast cancer, which is more difficult to combat.
Side effects can be very challenging, mostly because everyone’s experience is different. However, I make several recommendations to my patients, which I think makes a difference. Studies show that patients who participate in moderate exercise during their treatment recover faster and have fewer side effects.
So I tell my patients ...
- Stay active with physical exercise – focusing on cardiovascular health, strength and flexibility – by walking, doing beginner’s yoga or taking part in a stretching program.
- Eat healthy and eliminate processed high-fat and sugary foods.
- Get adequate natural sleep, without the use of sleep medications.
- Also, “reinvent” yourself. Having a goal, lofty or otherwise, can be very healing. If you've dreamed about learning to paint, riding a unicycle or finishing a marathon, now is the time to start.
I relate to my patients in ways that only patients and survivors understand. We share in the best sisterhood that we never wanted to join. As a physician, my experience with breast cancer is helpful to me as I encourage my patients to stick with their treatment plan. I find this battle compelling, and learn something from every one of my patients, and hope that what I learn from them will be helpful to others.
Finally, I remind all of my patients that they are not defined by their cancer. They are the same people they were before, but with a chance to start a new chapter of their lives.
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